RSS: absolute beginners

Bowie’s Absolute Beginners has just started playing, and it seems somehow synchronous. Today I want briefly to talk about RSS and the semantic web. For those of you in the MITIA class, you probably want to read over this before doing the assignment below, just to get an idea of what’s going on.

I’ve nothing much to offer

The idea of the “Semantic Web” has been floating around for a while. At its heart is the idea that the unstructured nature of the web could yield some really interesting results if only it was fit together in a logical way, rather than in the haphazard way that hyperlinks are constructed. The idea behind this was, to borrow from Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon.com), “making the Internet better for computers.”

It is a bit unfortunate that this is the idea that has stuck: that semantic technologies are primarily for making the internet computer-readable. Really, that’s not something that gets most people excited, and the amount of work that is required to make the web more computer-readable requires a lot of devoted people. As a result, there hasn’t — until recently — been much in the way of practical experience using technologies like XML that allow for the easy sharing of data that has traditionally been unstructured.

It was hard for normal users to get excited about XML, RDF and a whole jumble of other acronyms. The question was, what will it do for me?

With eyes completely open

RSS changed all that. RSS stands for — well, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what it does. RSS is a way of creating a “newswire” from your blog; that is, a way of syndicating it. Just as when you pick up the local newspaper, you might find articles that were provided by Associated Press, RSS allows you to provide your stories in a format that is easily manipulated.

So, if you want to make your blog more widely available, it is helpful to provide an “RSS feed” for it. Luckily, if you are on the SchoolOf.Info server, the blogging system already creates such a feed. If you want to see what such a feed looks like, you can take a look at http://schoolof.info/bestblog/wp-rss2.php. No doubt, you will find that this isn’t the prettiest view of your blog. You need another program that makes use of the RSS feeds and does something interesting with them.

The most common of these programs is called an “aggregator.” An aggregator scans the web for you to find new posts from news sources you have identified. Just as email systems can be on your computer (think MS -Outhouse- Outlook or Mulberry) or online (Yahoo Mail or Hotmail), so also can aggregators be both on the web or on your computer. In fact, some aggregators work with email programs. One of the most widely used online aggregators is called Bloglines. Bloglines allows you to access your aggregator from anywhere with a net connection, and provides some interesting features.

Could fly over mountains

It is easy to add blogs to your regular reading lists, using RSS. Major news organizations now provide RSS feeds that allow you to check changes. Google groups, and groups on Tribes also have RSS feeds to let you know when new material is posted. If you have Netflix you can subscribe to RSS feeds of new DVD releases or recommendations, among others. Or, if you want, you can get 150% of your daily allowance of puppy pictures delivered straight to your aggregator.

As long as we’re together

Now that RSS has gotten the ball rolling, other machine-readable versions of information are making their way out there. Once you have a collection of feeds, you can send someone this list (something like a bookmark file of rss feeds) in a machine-readable format called OPML. If you want to share information about your network of friends, you can encode this as a Friend-of-a-Friend (FOAF) file. Another approach to identifying friends is using the XFN format, which is built into the WordPress system. And there are dozens of other examples of material being provided in a format more easily readable by other programs on the net.

We’re certain to succeed

Although right now, the buzz about RSS is largely centered around weblogs and wikis, already the excitement is spreading to other parts of the web. A decade ago, it was common to hear discussions of “push” versus “pull” technologies on the web. RSS and other machine-readable forms of web publishing allow for something between push and pull, they allow for customized media that fits the individual’s interests. Eventually, they will go a step further, and provide information that is targeted without having to rely upon a user’s direct intervention.

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